Harmonica Bending, Types and Considerations

Most people have harmonica bending in mind when they start playing, at least beginning blues harmonica players. In theory bending is simple but as any blues harmonica player knows, it takes years to develop the technique. On top of this not all bends are created equa. Depending on what you want to do, you have to treat the bends differently. In this article I will outline how I view different types of bends and what that means for their usage.

There are diiferent types of harmonica bending

Not all harmonica bending is the same.

Fake harmonica bending

The first type is fake bending and by that I mean short change in the tonal quality of the note. It can be done by for example pronouncing “oy” when playing a note. It gives the impression of a change in pitch but that is not always the case. This type is often used by beginners before any real bending is mastered. It is a good way to introduce a bit more bluesiness in your playing if haven’t learned to bend yet.

Ornamental bending

Cloesly related to fake bends are ornamental bends. These are rapid changes in pitch at the start of a note. By using ornamental bends you get a nice tool for varying your riffs. By playing the same riff twice but varying how ornamental bends are used you introduce variation and make the riff more interesting to your listeners.

Melodic bending

Melodic bending is what I call bending to create the missing notes on the diatonic harmonica. In some sense that is what harmonica bending is for but as you will see below for blues you may sometimes want to create pitches that are slightly off. Melodic bending is what you would use to play folk melodies and pop songs and requires good technique and a good ear.

Blues bending

Blues bending is quite close to melodic bending but there are few other things to take into account. For hole 3 for example bending the half step to create the minor third in second position over a major 12 bar blues can sound even bluesier if it is a lttle bit sharp. If it is a little bit sharp and played dirty it sounds really cool. This is where there is a difference between blues bending and melodic bending. This does not apply when you play over a minor blues, in that case the minor third needs to be at the correct pitch (that is the same as for melodic bending, a big reason 3rd position is often used for minor blues to get the minor third “for free”).

Another difference is that bending hole 4 down half a step is actually bent lower than the melodic half step bend. The pitch created is somewhere between Db and C on a C-harmonica. Playing the half step perfectly in pitch is not as bluesy so you want to push it down all the way to get the full effect. Knowing the difference is what gives you the real blues horse power.

Conclusion

So what does this all mean? Well basically it means that depending on what effect you are after you need to consider how you practice and use your harmonica bending. What I recommend is that you practice your technique so that you can chose what type of bends to use. Being able to precisely control the pitch gives you the option to adopt your bends to the type of music you play. Get your technique and ears in shape!

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Harmonica Rehearsal Gone Bad

I have previously written on what is important when doing covers and how to practice and prepare properly. Now it is confession time, let me tell you what happens when your harmonica rehearsal routine is not up to par. A few weeks ago I was preparing for a gig with my trio “Worn Out Soles” and felt very confident. Not all results were as expected though.

Preparations

The preparations started out pretty much as they always do. We made a list of our repetoir and started playing around with the set list. This time I wanted to add a new song, namely SBWII’s “Help me”. I have had my eye on that song for some time but haven’t felt quite up to it. Now I felt it was within my powers to play so it got put up on the set list. I wanted the chords bombs to be there, solo close to SBWII and the bass line hook played by one of the guitars. The more we practiced the better it sounded, the chord bombs were aggresive, the solo was coming along and there was a nice groove.

At this point Pirs, one of the guitarists/vocalists said “hmm, we really should practice with all the gear”. Me and Magnus, the other guitarist/vocalist, agreed and then we kept doing what we were doing. At his point I should have recognised that I was heading for harmonica rehearsal one bad.

The result

To be fair we were practicing the way we usually practice and it has served us well so far. What I didn’t realize was that this song, “Help me”, required different microphone technique than what I had practiced before.

When it was time for the gig we felt prepared and did a nice job overall (if I can say so myself). However, when we got to “Help me” that was at the end of the set I quickly realized what I had missed in my preparations. I was singing and playing harmonica acoustically into a Shure SM58 and I wanted to keep my mouth close to the mic so that my voice didn’t sound too thin. This meant however that I had very little time to move my head back, bring up the harmonica, do the chord bomb and reset for singing. Since I hadn’t practice this, it really shook me up. Basically I messed up a whole bunch of the chord bombs, some of the vocals as well as part of the solo. I half panicked in the heat of the battle.

harmonica rehearsal with all equipment is important

The microphone that caused me problems.

The lesson

Overall the audience was happy and we got great feedback. For me, however, the experience was tainted by the fact that I could have done a much better job. Fortunately I can now take this as a learning experience and not skip realistic harmonica rehearsal with ALL equipment next time. If you are not rehearsing ralistically I suggest you start now!

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12 Bar Blues Variations – Get More Options

The 12 bar blues is one of the most common chord progressions used in the music world. It may seem like it would become boring quickly but it doesn’t. Things like groove, key, tempo and how to start and stop a song gives plenty of variety to the listener. There are however a few 12 bar blues variations that I feel are good to know. These will add a few more options when you play. I will use the roman numeral notation for the chord progression to make it key agnostic.

Quick change

A quick change means that you go to the IV-chord already in bar 2, the rest is just the same as the standard 12 bar blues. The quick change introduces a bit more movement in the chord structure and is one of the more common 12 bar blues variations. An example of a song using it is “Before you accuse me”. I like this variation and it is well worth practicing jamming over it because you will probably run into it.

12 bar blues variations - quick change outline

Outline of the 12 bar blues with a quick change.

Long V-chord

12 bar blues with a long V-chord may actually be a variation that is older than what we consider the standard form today. In this variation you stay on the V-chord also in the tenth bar. This form is used in the verses by Chuck Berry for “Johnny B Goode”. This is not a very common variation today but just for that reason it can be cool to use it sometime. It is also a great opportunity to show off your V-chord skills.

12 bar blues variations - long V-chord outline

Outline of the 12 bar blues with a long V-chord.

ii-V-I change

This change replaces the V-IV-I of the standard 12-bar blues. It has a bit of a more jazzy feel to it. You might be intimidated by the minor chord it introduces but it is not that difficult to handle. For G-major the ii-chord is Am which consits of A C E and G so two of the chord tones are already in the blues scale and E is easily accessible on a C-harp in 2nd position. An example of a song using this variation is Rory Gallagher’s “When my baby she left me”.

12 bar blues variations, ii-V-I change

12 bar blues with a ii-V-I change

Combining 12 bar blues variations

These variations don’t have to be used in isolation you can combine the quick change with either the long V-chord or the ii-V-I change. This way you can put more 12 bar blues variations under your belt. Sonny Boy Willimanson II’s “Born Blind” uses both a quick change and a ii-V-I change, one of my favorite songs. It is great fun to play.

Try it!

Now it’s time for you to try. I have put together three jamtracks of the variations in different styles for you to use when practicing. If you sign up to my newsletter you will receive the jam tracks as part of the Welcome Package.

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Taking Advantage of the V-chord

When it comes to improvising on the harmonica there is one place in the 12 bar blues where you really can stand out from the crowd. The place I am talking about is the V-chord, how you handle the V-chord signals to other musicians how knowledgeable you are. In this article I will give you the information you need to use theory to really shine over the V-chord.

V-chord

The V-chord sometimes causes harmonica players a bit of problems.

The problem with the V-chord

Let us first understand why the V-chord might be a bit problematic. For G-major (C harp in 2nd position) this is D. The chord tones are:

  • D, root
  • F#, third
  • A, fifth
  • C, minor seventh

If we look at the blues scale for G-major we have the following notes: G, Bb, C, Db, D and F. As you can see, C and D fit well with the chord tones but the other may need a bit of more care. G is the fourth of the scale realting to D which is a workable note but primarily a passing tone. Bb is a minor sixth, also primarily a passing tone and not even a scale tone. F is a minor third, a blue note for the chord and definately useful to create tension. Lastly Db is the major seventh and not really a note you want to use too much in blues.

The BS way

Playing many fast notes over a chord a player is not 100% comfortable with is not uncommen among some players. Although this will not sound bad it will not let you shine as a player. Maybe you will impress some people with speed but the pros will instantly recognise what you are doing. I do not recommend this approach and it is simple to avoid.

The easy ways

There are a couple of easy ways to handle the V-chord and still be musical. The first and easiest way is to hang on the root not all through the chord and perhaps touch on the minor seventh before going to the IV-chord. The same thing can be done with the fifth (6 draw would be easiest then). The only problem with this approach is that you will repeat yourself a lot, probably too much.

The second easy way is to learn a few V-IV-I-turnaround riffs to use. This is where a lot of players go and there are a huge number of them out there. It is basically up to you how many you choose to learn to avoid too much repetition. I think this is an excellent way and encourage you to seek out riffs to use. You will be standing on the shoulders of giants.

The knowledge approach

Even though I think learning riffs from other players is a great way I also think that using your theory knowledge can set you apart. By combining rhytmic patterns with chord tones you can come up with great riffs yourself. This will add options when you play and toyr riff bank will grow together with the set licks you have already learned. You will also be able to modify riffs you already know by stubstituting a few notes for the chord tones.

Besides being able to stay withing the chord tones for the V-chord there is another benefit. If you use mainly use the blues scale over the I- and IV-chord you will not use F# at all and probably A to a lesser extent. This means that to the human ear those notes will sound fresh when you use them. It doesn’t matter that you have played the third and the fifth of the other chords, the pitch of the note will be new and fresh to the ear. This is not only true for expert musicians who may actually be able to tell exactly what notes you are playing but also the average listener will notice. He or she will not be able describe what happens but it will sound fresh.

What next?

Now I would like to encourage you to internalize the chord tones for the V-chord and start using your knowledge when you play. Learn a few new licks and experiment with them. I also cover this and blue notes for the different chords in my “Learn to play awesome 12 bar blues harmonica solos” on Skillshare and Udemy.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to send me an e-mail.